The CMO Club caught up with Zena Arnold, Chief Digital & Marketing Officer at Kimberly-Clark. A CPG and tech veteran, Zena has built and managed some of the world’s most iconic and innovative consumer and tech brands at Google, Kellogg, and Procter & Gamble. With a background in computer science, she started her career at GE. We asked Zena to share her journey with us.
Our first question: What are three themes that have been present throughout your career?
Embracing Change, Always be Learning, Bringing the Next into Now
The three themes that are most reflective in my experiences are Embracing Change, Always be Learning, and Bringing the Next into Now.
From the very start of my career things often ended up differently than I thought they would. I graduated with a Computer Science degree and entered the job market just as the dot com bubble was bursting. The tech job I had lined up for post-graduation evaporated weeks before my start date. Embracing that change and the many that followed has always led me to new paths where I’ve learned and grown. I stumbled into marketing and I have been loving it every day since. The formative years of my career were in consumer packaged goods at Proctor & Gamble and Kellogg. Later things took a turn in a direction I wasn’t expecting and I made another leap – this time to the tech sector to work for Google. With every leap comes lots of uncertainty and questions. It’s hard entering doors you haven’t previously walked through. But I do really enjoy embracing these changes. For me, they’ve proven to be opportunities to learn and that’s my second theme.
Learning and change are so intertwined because by choice or otherwise, situations change, and in every change is an opportunity for growth. This has been true in every one of my career transitions: new ways of working, new approaches to take, new markets to learn. I won’t say I’ve never been scared or nervous because I have. But I try to embrace the learning that comes with change. As I do my confidence builds and my conviction strengthens that I am capable of figuring out the next big change.
And that’s what my third theme is all about, bringing the next into now. Early in my career at P&G I had the opportunity to work on some innovative projects that brought new ways of doing things to the very established “P&G way.” We launched product innovation in months rather than the years it would have typically taken. Throughout my career, learning, experimenting, and trying new things has led to the work that I’m most proud of, and the work that was the most fun. This is what drew me to a place like Google. There’s no playbook there. A core value of the company is to bring the next into now. And that happens through learning, experimenting, and trying new things.
Learning and change are so intertwined – every change, regardless of whether it’s planned or not, is an opportunity for growth.
The Best-Laid Plans
My parents are Indian and were extremely focused on my academics and professional success as they raised me. Throughout high school and college I was laying the foundations for this. My carefully selected coursework and summer internships were all supposed to lead to the professional job after college. I graduated. Then the cool dot com ompany where I had lined up a job went bankrupt. The job evaporated. It was the first time in my life that I didn’t have the next steps already planned out. I had to move back home with my parents. I took a job at the mall working as a salesperson. I was a college graduate working full-time at a job that didn’t require a high school degree.
That experience had a huge impact on me. It opened my eyes to how a lot of very smart, very talented people who are not on the college and professional career path make a living. By joining their ranks I got a new level of empathy. I made friendships I still treasure to this day. My plans were so disruptively upended. At the time I never could have imagined how much that experience would broaden my horizons. The front lines in retail developed me professionally in ways none of my professional internships had. It’s amazing what having a quota can teach you about the fundamentals of selling and customer service.
In time a new door opened leading back into the professional world I had prepared for and dreamed of. I took the lessons that the sales job at the mall had taught me as I entered the corporate world. And those lessons have served me in every subsequent door I walked through throughout my career.
My plans were so disruptively upended, but that led to experiences that broadened my horizons in ways that I never could have imagined.
Diving into Your Uncomfort Zone
I spent my early career at well-established companies where there are traditional, predictable ways of doing things. When I moved to Google I went from a culture that embraced methodology to one that was all about experimentation and agility. The constant change, the absence of process, the ever-shifting strategy was so orthogonal to every experience that I previously had. It was like being on a soft, warm beach and then diving into the Arctic Ocean. This new way of doing things was like nothing I had seen before.
I was excited to join Google because I have a Computer Science degree and I knew it would be a place I could rekindle my passion for tech. I was proud of the learnings and experiences I brought with me as a marketer, and I was eager to take on the work we had ahead of us at Google. Figuring out how to fit my passions, my expertise, my perspectives into the larger picture at Google was how I found the ability to get comfortable in the demanding dynamics of a company on such a growth trajectory. I was able to adapt well to the natural turbulence that accompanies explosive growth by constantly examining where I had something meaningful to contribute rooted in my passion, expertise, and perspective – and bring that forward. This was how I found ways to contribute to Google’s growth. And how the experiences at Google greatly contributed to mine.
I adapted to natural turbulence that comes with explosive growth by constantly examining where I could contribute in ways that were true to my passion, my expertise, and my perspective.
I give my people a lot of opportunity to lead my thinking and to tell me what we should be doing. Giving people these opportunities and seeing how they rise to them is one of the most exciting and rewarding things that you can do as a leader. Leadership is not about just giving directives on exactly how something should be done. When you’re hired as a leader for the specific expertise you bring to an organization it would be easy to fall down the rabbit hole of “let me tell you exactly what to do and exactly how to do it.” But that’s not how to get meaningful change embedded into the organization. The most impactful changes I’ve seen made in organizations – both in my current role and my previous ones – have been where there was less preaching from leadership and more insights and expertise coming from people who are closest to the work. In my current role we’ve gotten these really agile teams together to make a lot of progress in a very short time. We’re breaking some of the traditional ways of working and by doing that, we’ve been able to make years of progress in months. This happens when leaders spend less time telling and more time inspiring. Leaders open folks up to “Hey, there’s different ways of doing things. Let’s try it – and I will have your back if it doesn’t work.”
The most impactful changes I’ve seen made in organizations have been where there was less preaching from leadership and more insights and expertise coming from people who are closest to the work.
Look at Three Vital Attributes in Every Role
I tell the folks I mentor there are three important things to think about for every job you take. The first is the people that you work with: Do they energize you and push you to the next level? Do they support you and have your back? Do you enjoy being around them? The second: Are you learning something new? Are you pushing yourself to get a new experience whether it’s a skill set or a way of working? Number three: Do you have support from your management to achieve what you aspire to?
Where I’ve had all those three things, the business results I was able to deliver have been amazing, the enjoyment and personal satisfaction I’ve had in these roles has been off the charts. We all know it’s unusual to always have all three. For me, if I have two of the three things, that’s pretty good. However, when only one of these things is present, I usually tell my mentees to think about what would bring them more of the three things and to reflect on whether they’re in the right role for this point in their journey.
The Biggest Job You’ll Ever Have
Both my husband and I have always been career-focused and we’ve always loved our life. We hadn’t really prioritized growing our family but when it happened we were thrilled. I remember being a bit apprehensive going into parenthood thinking: “Well, I’m a career-focused person. Is that going to change? It’s a big part of my identity. What if it does?” But I found when our son was born the opposite happened for me. I found myself much more engaged and energized by work. Becoming a parent helped me recognize being a role model for my child is exceptionally important to me. It made me even more committed to what I wanted to do, and more committed to being the example that my son needs to have in his life – the example that I want to give him.
I’ve had to prioritize things differently since becoming a parent. I’m much more disciplined about how I manage my time so I have enough to spend with him. I cherish being a parent. My role is to grow and guide him, and that’s the biggest job I’ll ever have. To do that well I have recognized I need all of the things that make me whole as a person to be present in my life. Work is an important part of that for me.
Guiding my son and helping him grow is the biggest job I’ll ever have. To do that well, I need all of the things that make me whole as a person to be present in my life. Work is an important part of that for me.
Connections Run Deep
I’ve been fortunate to have many deep connections along the way. I’ve increasingly recognized through the years the importance of maintaining both personal and professional connections. My upbringing was focused on academics: there was a lot of pressure to get a perfect score on tests. I saw that as the path to success. But I now see that to succeed in life, and in the business world, it’s less about perfect scores. It’s more about the connections you’re making with the people in your life. Are you enriching their experiences? Are they enriching yours?
Over the last several years I’ve made a concerted effort to stay in closer contact with the people who’ve touched my life. When something reminds me of them, I reach out. When they reach out to me, I close the loop and try to help.
Keeping in touch takes time and real effort. It’s worth it. These moments of connection are so important. I’ve found that they renew me. These people I treasure from my journey have known me and walked many miles with me. They help me see things more clearly. They help me think about what is next in very insightful ways. They give me great advice. I treasure these connections.
These moments of connection are so important, especially in times like this. I’ve found that they renew me.
My Global Village
My husband and I have an important life goal: to visit 100 countries before we die. I’m at 43 countries. I love traveling for a chance to see the world and to get more of other folks’ experiences. As a student of human nature, I love it. As a marketer, it’s key to understanding our consumer base. One of my favorite things to do when I’m traveling is a grocery store check. I just love to see what kinds of products locals use and enjoy. It just gives me a more authentic experience of what it’s like to live and be in that place.
The international perspective really ties into the themes of being open to change, and learning. For me, travel is an opportunity to understand the experiences of people around the world. I realize I’ve had a pretty unique experience myself given my background and growing up in the US Midwest to immigrant parents. My jobs have given me the opportunity to work in so many different markets. We did the launch of Google Play Music in Mexico – I got to spend weeks with the team there understanding the nuances of the market. Every marketer knows to live and succeed the product must incorporate the local flavor of the market. Developing this is one of my favorite things to do with teams everywhere. I’ve been so inspired by our global teams at Kimberly-Clark. They operate in innovative, agile ways. I love taking the role of looking for these gems across the company and figuring out how we can expand their great way of working and help us accomplish more in other places.
My global village includes my colleagues and family around the world and they are a source of inspiration and discovery for me. They are one of the things that makes my life rich.
I love taking the role of looking for these gems across the company and figuring out how we can expand their great way of working and help us accomplish more in other places.